Monday, February 02, 2009

Vegetable Karma

I have found myself having conversations I recognize. I have bored my vegetarian friends with these same conversations for years. Only now I'm on the receiving end. I'm not even vegetarian.

A few weeks ago, I started changing my eating. Changing my eating habits, as they say in the diet and nutrition industry. I read an article about Mark Bittman's book Food Matters, where he talks about his own decision to be 'vegan until six.' He lists a number of reasons; his own health, the cruelty that industrialized livestock raising perpetrates on animals, the fact that we eat so much meat that to not factory raise animals is impossible. (He does the math and it turns out there isn't enough land in the world to pasture feed the beef and chicken that we eat or get eggs, milk, and butter from.) I worry about cruelty, but what really attracted me was his claim (which I have no reason to doubt) that he lost 35 pounds this way. Whole grains, beans, vegetables and fruits, try to avoid refined flour and sugar, and then in the evening, eat the way you're used to eating.

This had a lot of possible advantages for me. For one thing, it wouldn't much inflict my latest food weirdness on Bob. He would go to the office, design marvelous mechanisms all day, and come home to the kind of thing we usually eat for dinner, like Thai style chicken stir fry with noodles. And for me, I thought, no big deal. I tend to make a big pot of something at the beginning of the week and eat it for lunch, now that big pot would involve whole grains and beans.

Mark Bittman makes it clear that he is not vegan. This is a guide. He says if the cucumber in creamy dressing look good at the salad bar, he doesn't hesitate to pick them. I'm not vegan either. I still use Worcester sauce, oyster sauce and honey, and I don't know if my high fiber bread is vegan. I doubt it is. On Saturdays, when we meet friends for breakfast, there are no vegan options on the menu and that's fine with me. I have eggs and a short stack. With butter. But during the day I don't use butter, milk, cheese, or meat. I do use olive oil and canola oil. Peanut butter. It's not about calories. Although it turns out that if you go mostly vegan and avoid white flour and refined sugar, the calories tend to fall all by themselves.

I feel quite smug at the grocery store, loading up my cart with vegetables and fancy beans and quinoa and wheatberries. (Quinoa and wheatberries are just grains, like rice. Using them is a lot like using rice. They're fun to experiment with, and they're that thing that nutritionists and diet people are always going on about, 'whole grains.') But the cooking is different and it's a stretch. It also means that going out to lunch has become a little complicated, at least for the nonce. Because for now I'm trying to be fairly strict.

The biggest difference is in the way I look at food. The way I think about food prep. The way I think about eating. I'd like this experiment to have some lasting changes. I'd like it to make me eat healthier. I worry about the possibility of diabetes's. My dad died of heart disease. You know, all the usual things. Being fairly strict (although, as I said, not completely rulebound) forces me to find other ways of doing.

What I didn't expect was the way people would suddenly talk to me about food. People have explained to me that veganism is unhealthy (the actual truth; sometimes yes, mostly, no.) People have defensively explained their own relationship with meat. (I want to say, 'I may be having tofu and swiss chard for lunch but I'm making beef short ribs for dinner with company--I eat meat, too. Just about 1/3rd of what I used to eat.) I hear coming out of my mouth the same things vegetarians have been saying to me for years. "Everyone has to come to their own accommodation about eating." And, "Yes, a diet that's inflexible is probably a bad thing."

I know part of the problem, because it's always been my problem. When someone mentions that they are vegetarian, I am forced, again, to confront my own relationship with food and killing. I am uncomfortable with that relationship, so I project that onto the poor vegetarian. And while I am certain there are sanctimonious and judgmental vegetarians out there, everyone I know really doesn't seem to think less of me because I eat meat. I don't think less of people who eat more meat than me. Au contraire, I am more than a little defensive about standing in front of my fridge at noon thinking that the butter is off limits until 6:00 pm. I don't like the fact that my lunches are looking more and more like that stuff they serve at the co-op, even though, in fact, a lot of it tastes pretty good. (And the stuff that doesn't I don't make twice.) I am sensitive to the whole homeopathic, hemp-sandal, crystal gazing possibilities of 'alternative lifestyles.' And vegan is alternative.

I did find some places of true vegetarian intolerance. It turns out that what a certain kind of vegetarian really saves their judgment for is...other vegetarians. I went on a vegan bulletin board looking for recipes. The flame wars that start when someone says something like, 'I'm mostly vegan.' Half of the board erupts in an 'you're either against the exploitation of animals or you're not and if you drank milk, you're not!' while the other half launches into 'it's stupid that one bite of animal products means you're not a vegetarian, would anyone say that a non-vegetarian is now a vegetarian if they ate a vegetarian meal?' (Which would make eating your Raisin Bran at breakfast a radical act.)

The other weird thing about vegan is that many vegans are protesting what they see as the over-commodification of the world, the fast food, frozen dinner, junk food excesses of the American diet. They're not alone. Michael Pollan has written some really interesting books about the way agribusiness has altered our eating, to our detriment. (A hundred years ago, there were still many Americans who worried about getting enough food--now we are most likely to die of the effects of our excesses--heart attack, stroke, diabetes.) Corporations are in the business of finding our sweet spot--the places where we can be tricked into feeling that we need/want/have to have more. That sweet spot is, in humans, actually sweet. And fat-laden. Pollan suggests shopping the periphery of the store--the fruits, vegetables, fish, meat and dairy that line the outside ring of grocery--and skipping as much as possible, the central aisles, where food is usually processed. But, as he points out, there is still a lot of stuff that is processed and unhealthy even at the edge of the grocery--most of what passes for yogurt, which is coming more and more to resemble ice cream. So he also proposes that you try to buy only things your grandmother would recognize. And only things that have five or fewer ingredients--and you should know what those ingredients are, no calcium propionate, sodium nitrate, sodium nitrite, sulfites (sulfur dioxide, sodium bisulfite, potassium hydrogen sulfite etc.

First of all, neither of my grandmothers would have recognized tofu, but that reflects their ethnically European origins. Second of all, vegan recipes often seem full of animal product analogues--soy cheeses, soy milks, cashew cheese, Boca burgers, and wheat gluten 'chicken'. Here's the list of ingredients for Tofutti Mozzarella Soy-Cheese Slices (TM) Water, Partially Hydrognated Soy Bean Oil, Tofu, Soy Protein, Carrageenan, Maltodextrin, Vinegar, Calcium Phosphate, Potato Flakes, Salt, Guar and Carob Bean Gums, Nondairy Lactic Acid, Adipic Acid, Dairy Free Mozzarella Cheese Flavor (derived from vegetable source) Natural Color and Potassium Sorbate. It is, I would say, as processed and commercial a product as KFC. With the important distinction that no animal products were killed in the making. And this is an important distinction. But it's a scary list.

We all have rules about what we eat, about what is strange and what is not. Those rules are deeply embedded in our sense of who we are. When I lived in China, the thinks that were most fundamentally disorienting were language, of course, food, and manners. (We think our manners make sense, but honestly, they don't--but that's another post.) We are most comfortable when our food choices are reinforced by the people around us. Food choice is often a source of rebellion.

I'm going to keep doing this, at least for awhile. I've lost two pounds, which is part of it. I feel better--simple carbs make me sleepy and a little dull. And I feel better about my carbon footprint, and all that. I reserve the right to go out and get a hamburger for lunch if I want to. And to eat vegan for dinner if I want to. And frankly, I don't mind if you eat meat. Even for breakfast.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

just wanted to say how much I love this post. A shocking number of my memories from living in Beijing revolve around food, both the alien and familiar. Also, Omnivore's dilemma spurred me to move away from processed foods right-quick.

February 02, 2009 10:16 PM  
Blogger anne said...

I was put off going vegan because of some of the 'holier than thou' attitudes but once I gave it a go, I sort of understand where those attitudes come from. I try not to get into that myself.

As for the meat analogues - a lot of vegans have concerns about them too. I know I do. I try to keep to five ingredients or less (unless the list is of spices and herbs!) which includes plain tofu and seitan (wheat gluten).

Anyway, even cutting back on meat and dairy consumption is a good thing to do, for your health and for the planet. And it is an interesting experience as you are already finding oout.

February 03, 2009 4:06 AM  
Blogger Erin O'Brien said...

Because I am stupid, I sometimes go on red red red conservative political sites and comment. The moronic flaming that ensues never ceases to amaze me.

Hence, I was really glad to read your observations about that sort of thing going on at vegan sites.

Radicals. What can you say?

p.s. Soylent Green is people

February 04, 2009 11:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To your list of forbidden ingredients I would add two that are derived from natural sources: high fructose corn syrup and wheat gluten. If you eat prepared foods it is almost impossible to avoid these since they rank 1 and 2 as the most common food additives.

Recently published research shows that fructose is metabolized by the liver in a way wholly unlike surcose or glucose. This may be one of the roots of the pre-diabetic condition called metabolic syndrome. Wheat gluten is the cause of celiac disease which doctors are finding is more prevalent that they had thought.

I'm more than a little uncomfortable with the food pyramid recommending whole grains. Through millions of years of primate evolution our ancestors didn't eat grain in any large quantity. Ten thousand years ago humans invented farming and suddenly grain became the center of the human diet. The Egyptian peasants subsisted on bread and mummies show evidence of pervasive heart disease and diabetes.


February 04, 2009 1:50 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Stuart, I'm not convinced on wheat gluten. But the two things on a food label I try to avoid are high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated vegetable oil. I don't avoid them completely. I don't avoid anything completely, nor do I intend to, except, you know, arsenic and cyanide and strontium 90, that kind of thing.

You may be right on my bowl of wheatberries, but frankly, I'm running out of things to eat, and while wheat gluten might be an issue, I'm still better off with my wheatberries than I am with a loaf of white bread. (And sometimes I have white bread--like the hot rolls with butter for dinner last night.)

I'm lucky, so far I show no signs of heart disease or of blood sugar problems. If I did, I might have to be more absolutist.

February 04, 2009 3:39 PM  
Blogger chanel said...

I'm so happy to read that there are other moderates out there.

My husband and I are trying to follow the Food Matters recommendations this year, with a twist that we don't buy things with multiple ingredients, and when we talk to vegetarians, vegans, locavores, or even our regular meat-eating friends, they all have strong and even hostile opinions about it.

We feel like any change for the better is good and even if we have bacon once a week and go out for barbeque on special occasions, we are making our lives better.

That's why we like Food Matters, it is a practical approach for people like us, who are trying to change gradually.

Now I just need to start loosing weight like you have, boiled grains and salads every day haven't made a dent in my weight-loss goal. Congratulations on your progress.

February 04, 2009 4:21 PM  
Blogger anne said...

I'd obviously love it if you all became vegan, but from my own experience, any kind of pressure or shock tactics is counter-productive.

One reason many veg*ns come across as intolerant is that we often hear stuff like "my friend is vegan and she eats fish, so eat this fish". So we sort of get a bit hung up on "this is vegan, that isn't", nitpicking and arguing amongst ourselves. I think it's part of being human.

I got into veganism because of concerns about the impact of animal farming on the environment and on humans, and a bit about my health, but I then got interested in animal rights. I am still working things out - I think of it as a process, rather than something final.

I am sure people will criticise me as being too hard line and others who will say I am not vegan enough.

February 04, 2009 4:59 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Anne, the funny thing is that we're all defensive about our eating. And even those of us who are not attacked (and I've been learning just how people do react to vegans, just by saying I do it part time so I can't say at this moment I'm among the 'not attacked') seem to feel attacked just by others' choices.

Sometimes, being vegan must be a little like when I lived in China, and I overheard a student tell another students that Americans 'don't like tofu.' Because I didn't, and I was the American he knew, therefore all Americans must... But I especially like thinking of it as a process.

February 04, 2009 6:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

(for calibration, I have a personal one-two dietary joke -- I'm a member of the smallest dietary minority in the country. I'm an omnivore. But I'm on a very restricted diet -- it's limited exclusively to food. Nothing the color of Cheetos is food. I don't eat Arby's because I know how they manufacture it.)

You briefly mentioned Thai, but if you aren't into it already, you may want to seriously check out Indian. Lots and lots of grain/legume/vegetable stuff, much of which can be made in great potfuls and refrigerated for some time.

As for yogurt (one of my personal staples is granola & yogurt), you really have to read the label there, too. Pectin, "modified food starch", tapioca . . . someone on Food Control decided that Americans can't stand yogurt with the consistency of yogurt.

A couple of years ago, I started an experiment which had unexpected results. I decided that I would include some vegetables in each meal. Not cutting down or out, just veggies, too. I suddenly had barred myself from 95% of American fast food. Chinese and Mexican were all that was left. It was an eye-opener.

not Anonymous, just no Google account.

February 04, 2009 9:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a celiac who has been eating wheat/gluten free for 3 years now. I miss the texture of bread but my gut likes me a lot better than it used to. A whole lot better.

I try to eat organic, partly because the food tastes better IMO, but also because studies have shown organic veggies are more nutritious. I also try to eat less meat now and make that meat the organic/pasture raised when possible. It just makes sense to be cautious about what you ingest and the 5 ingredient rule isn't a bad one to follow so long as you don't treat it as religion.

Once you look at the ingredient list on a Lean Cuisine box, you've got to wonder what damage you've done to yourself eating that stuff. And it doesn't even taste good.


February 07, 2009 9:31 PM  
Blogger Amy Sparks said...

So glad to come across this post, Maureen. I like Greek yogurt too much to give up dairy. I don't crave meat at all, except fish. But I want to change my habits. Will look into this way of eating...

February 16, 2009 11:06 AM  
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